Fort Kent Police Chief Tom Pelletier, left, joined demonstrators who took a knee in memory of George Floyd at a "United We Stand, Divided We Fall" gathering in Fort Kent in June 2020. Credit: Jessica Potila / St. John Valley Times

FORT KENT, Maine — An inability to attract officers to fill vacancies could result in the closure of the Fort Kent police department.

Fort Kent isn’t alone. Several police departments across Aroostook County are down officers, and Fort Kent is one of only two remaining departments in the St. John Valley.

Van Buren closed its department last December due to a lack of officers. Madawaska is the other town that still has a department in the Valley.

“We’re facing shutting down a police department,” Fort Kent Police Chief Tom Pelletier said. “We’re in a major dilemma here to be able to figure out what we’re going to do with half the manpower.”

The decline in applicants to police departments is a problem throughout the country due to low pay and lack of benefits for a job that the public often views negatively. Law enforcement at all levels has come under fire in the United States in recent years, and especially since the May 2020 murder of George Floyd.

Floyd, a Black man accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store, died after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for more than 9 minutes, despite Floyd’s fervent pleas for help. A jury found Chauvin guilty of murder, and Floyd’s death has resulted in calls for police reform throughout the country.

Among police reform initiatives are bills that would eliminate qualified immunity for officers, which protects them from personal liability, or civil lawsuits, for actions taken while on duty, as long as no constitutional rights were violated and no criminal act was committed.

LD 214, which would have ended qualified immunity in Maine, recently was moved to the full Legislature with an ought-not-to-pass recommendation after a 9-1 vote in committee. State Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship, sponsored the bill.

But a federal bill, The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act 2020, is still under consideration and includes a provision to end qualified immunity.

Aroostook County Sheriff Shawn Gillen acknowledges there are systemic issues that need to be addressed in law enforcement.

“Does there need to be police reform — absolutely,” Gillen said. “Are there bad cops out there? Absolutely. But good cops far outweigh the bad cops, I can tell you that.”

Gillen said eliminating qualified immunity is not the answer. “It’s going to make people second guess themselves and frankly get them hurt, get them killed or force people out of the profession, which it already has.”

Already lacking in officers, Fort Kent could find itself without a police chief as well.

A Fort Kent Police Department cruiser is seen in this BDN file photo. Credit: BDN file

Pelletier, who has served as chief for the past seven years, and had previously retired after 24 years with Maine State Police, said he may bring an end to his lengthy law enforcement career if qualified immunity is revoked.

If the Fort Kent Police Department were to shut its doors, the impact would be felt countywide, the sheriff said.

“If the town was to dry up and not have a police department, all those calls would come to us or the State Police,” Gillen said. “When Van Buren closed the doors [on its police department] we had 110 calls in that one month just to our Sheriff’s Office.”

The Fort Kent Police Department averages 5,000 calls a year in a town that has a little more than 4,000 people, Pelletier said.

When running at capacity, the Fort Kent department employs four full-time officers and a full-time chief of police. Currently, the department has three full-time officers, including Pelletier, as well as several reserve officers who can only work up to 1,040 hours each per year. Full-time Officer Cole Pelletier is attending police academy training until the end of July.

Of the reserve officers, Jack Maloney, who graduated from the University of Maine at Fort Kent last week, is leaving in June to return to his home state of Massachusetts.

Another Fort Kent officer, Caleb Jandreau, recently accepted a job as an Aroostook County Sheriff’s deputy, which Pelletier said offers higher pay and more lucrative benefits than the Fort Kent Police Department.

The sheriff said that his department might have to hire more deputies to help cover Fort Kent if that department were to close.

Hiring more deputies at the Sheriff’s Office would entail more than just attracting officers, Aroostook County Administrator Ryan D. Pelletier said.

“Like any other agency, we are confined to the budget we have to work with, so if in the future more patrols would be added to cover a community or region, that would have to be done through the regular budget process,” he said.

The police department is not facing an imminent risk of closure, but the possibility exists if more officers are not hired, Fort Kent Town Manager Suzie Paradis said.

Paradis said she and Pelletier are looking at options to draw qualified applicants, including more competitive salaries, sign-on bonuses and benefit packages. Fort Kent voters passed a provision in June 2019 for town employees, including police officers, to receive Maine Public Employees Retirement System benefits.

“Closure of this department would be detrimental to our community; we can’t let this happen,” Paradis said.

Chief Pelletier said that other departments within Aroostook County also struggle to attract officers. Fort Fairfield is down to one officer and may be on the verge of closing, and Presque Isle and Ashland are both short officers as well, he said.

“We’re all drawing from the same pool,” Pelletier said. “I refuse to lower my standards but I’m not even getting applicants.”